As soon as you enter Bon Marché Bistro in Monterey Park, you realize it's not the quaint French café its name evokes.
Stacks of dishes that look like small sawed-off barrels sit on a counter in front of the open kitchen. Earthenware pots and boxes of fresh produce occupy a ledge in front of the restaurant's heavy iron stove.
The arrangement may seem haphazard, yet it typifies the traditional farm family kitchens in Hong Kong's once-rural New Territories, an area wedged between Kowloon and the borderland with mainland China. And Joseph Li, the man at the stoves, is giving many Angelenos their first taste of this little-explored region.
The New Territories was once home to Hakka immigrant farmers and fisherfolk. In the days of the Crown Colony, their labors fed Hong Kong's waves of hungry immigrants and supplied the city's elite restaurants.
Bon Marché is already winning hearts and palates with this light, peasant-style cuisine and a rendition of the classic New Territories poon choi feast. The festive meal, eaten family-style, comes to the table steamy and fragrant in one of those shallow, barrel-like containers from the counter display. It's an extravagant affair: The basic poon choi, over which separately cooked dishes are arranged in layers, overflows with lightly braised vegetables, meatballs, fish balls, pressed tofu, black mushrooms and other treasures bobbing in a brothy sauce. One could easily imagine half-a-dozen Hakka grandmothers or aunties working all day to ready the feast.
Bon Marché offers the basic poon choi (listed on the menu as "Hong Kong Traditional Village Main Dish") in six sizes, the smallest serving two to four, depending on the number of layers. Of 20 or so possibilities on the menu, the layers might include juicy garlic shrimp, barbecued squid smoky from the grill, meaty wine-braised chicken -- or all of them. Li's labor-intensive blanched, twice-roasted duck (a.k.a. "tasted duck") is like the poultry equivalent of Wagyu beef.
The different layers may be served separately; for a large group, it's advisable to order several on the side.
Adding flavorful grace notes to the poon choi are two house-made sauces: fresh red chile and chunky, salty fresh clam served in tiny dishes.
Bon Marché's food may be homespun, but it is expertly wrought. Li takes the time to make his own Hakka-style fish balls. He steams his homemade rice rolls to order, cooking the noodle-like sheets as you watch. Pillowy soft and more tender than the stiffer commercial varieties, these savory wonders get wrapped around your chosen filling of shrimp, beef or pork belly with preserved vegetables.
Menu names such as "Hong Kong traditional village pork belly chow mein" do little justice to the dish: al dente noodles sauced with a complex broth that has been reduced to an intense meaty essence. Nor do they reveal the pleasures of "Sak Kong Military Camp Cuisine," the notion of which may conjure up mystery meat at Scout camp. But included in this category is Li's brightly seasoned house-made "York heck" curry, based on his proprietary spice mixture blended into a fresh taro-carrot purée. The dish is said to be inspired by food served to Nepalese-British soldiers once stationed in the New Territories -- "inspired" being the operative word. Even the accompanying rice is exemplary: fluffy, fat grains with the sweetness of a just-harvested crop.
Years ago, Li owned Sun Tung Lok Seafood in L.A., and he has traveled the world to consult and train employees for opulent Chinese restaurants in Paris, Moscow and Guangdong, China. At the moment, he senses his customers' need for nurturing comfort foods. Thus the modest Bon Marché was conceived, based on the poon choi restaurants in the New Territories that lure urbanites to the area for special outings.
Possibly the menu item that says the most about Li is his "main dish designed by you" -- his way of offering to prepare, if possible, whatever a customer craves at the moment. For one friend, he stir-fried romaine lettuce with garlic slivers -- simple but spectacular. Such hospitable gestures make you feel welcomed and cared for, as if you were walking into Li's personal kitchen, and in fact, you are.